Nonprofits and Civic Engagement


  • Jeffrey M. Berry

    1. John Richard Skuse, Class of 1941 Professor of Political Science at Tufts University. His research and teaching interests focus on interest groups, policy making, and grassroots advocacy. His most recent books are Surveying Nonprofits: A Methods Handbook (Aspen Institute, 2003) and A Voice for Nonprofits (with David F. Arons, Brookings Institution, 2003), which received the Leon Epstein Award from the Political Organizations and Parties section of the American Political Science Association. E-mail:
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There are approximately 800,000 501(c)(3) nonprofits large enough to register with the federal government. Add churches, foundations, and nonprofits too small to register, and the number is far higher than that. The potential for nonprofits to engage their clients and members in community affairs and public policy making is, in theory, enormous. Yet, perversely, nonprofits are regulated by the federal government in such a way that discourages the involvement of their followers in the public policymaking process. This is a problem, not simply because we social scientists believe civic engagement is a good thing, but because these regulatory standards sharply skew public participation. Although middle- and upper-class individuals have many organizations that engage and mobilize them, nonprofits usually are the only organizations that work on behalf of the poor, those without health insurance, immigrants, the disabled, and most other marginalized constituencies. Put bluntly, federal law works against the participation of the most disadvantaged in society.